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Texas Speaker Straus Questions Whether Online Media Deserve Press Passes

Texas Speaker Straus Questions Whether Online Media Deserve Press Passes

AUSTIN, Texas — In a keynote conversation at The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday, Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) made several comments regarding changes he would like to see to the process for granting media credentials for reporters at the Capitol who wish to cover the Texas Legislature. As the Legislature continues to make preparations for the upcoming 2015 legislative session, the issue of which media outlets will be granted the highest level of access to cover the Legislature has been a topic of debate, and Breitbart Texas reached out to several other Texas media outlets for their reactions to Straus’ comments.

Texas Tribune reporter, Ross Ramsay, asked Straus, “This is a peripheral issue I’m interested in…there is a question about who is a reporter…and it used to be easy to say, that one works for a newspaper, that one works for a TV station, that one works for radio, [but] now it’s blurry, and there are groups that, and there are journalists that work for publications of whatever kind that have an ideological viewpoint…when you get to this point where you’re looking at a spectrum of people calling themselves journalists who include old school definitions of journalists all the way to maybe this is an advocate, do we let them on the floor of the House, where’s your thinking on this right now?”

“I do know what I would like to see happen,” replied Straus, saying that he would like to see the media self-regulate, suggesting that “whatever media members are out there [could] self-describe what’s legitimate and what’s not.”

“The media landscape clearly is changing — The Texas Tribune is an example of that,” Straus continued. “Those that have a political point of view, that then engage in campaign politics, and they’re nothing but political consultants who are working during the off year, maybe fit under a different definition,” he said. Straus acknowledged that many mainstream newspapers like the San Antonio Express-News made political endorsements, and he himself was not sure where the line was. 

Currently, House Rule 5, § 20 sets forth the procedures for media credentials, and under subsection (a), media credentials are only available to media representatives who are “a salaried staff correspondent, reporter, or photographer regularly employed by a newspaper, a press association or news service serving newspapers, a publication requiring telegraphic coverage, or a duly licensed radio or television station or network.” Subsection (b) provides that a media representative applying for a media credential must submit “fully accredited credentials from his or her employer certifying that the media representative is engaged primarily in reporting the sessions of the legislature,” and subsection (c) states that if a media representative meets these requirements, as determined by the House Administration Committee, then “the committee shall issue a pass card to the person.” 

Media representatives credentialed under these Rules have access to the House floor during session and other work areas, as well as the ability to request permission to make live television or radio broadcasts while the House is in session. Texas is one of the few states nationwide to allow such broad media access to the House floor; many of the others that do allow some floor access still limit the areas where reporters can go, or only allow camera operators.

Although neither the House Rules nor the official Media Credential Application specifically provide for online media outlets, media credentials have been issued to online journalists during past sessions. According to a survey by the Pew Research Journalism Project released this past July, nationally there has been a growth in “non-traditional” media outlets covering state legislatures, with 16% of the nation’s statehouse reporters working for an online-only media outlet or a non-profit organization. In fact, The Texas Tribune operates the largest statehouse bureau in the country, with fifteen full-time staffers.

Breitbart Texas reached out to The Texas Tribune’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith for his reaction to Straus’ comments. Smith emphasized that his view was that “more is better, generally speaking,” when it came to media access. “I’m all for more robust coverage,” said Smith, citing the benefits to the public in having more information available to them. 

The problem was a logistics issue, according to Smith. In theory, while we want to allow as much coverage and access as possible, he noted that there simply was not physically room to allow “everyone with a computer” to have a press pass.  Smith mentioned that rules for media credentials have been established in Capitol buildings in every state and Washington, D.C., courthouses like the United States Supreme Court, and even political campaigns will promulgate rules about which reporters are invited on their campaign bus or plane. “It’s never easy, and inevitably, because of the numbers, people will be left out,” said Smith.

Erica Grieder, Senior Editor of Texas Monthly, Breitbart Texas that she had not had any problems getting credentialed under the current system, adding “I’d be wary of any changes that could restrict media access, intentionally or otherwise.”

“For reporters in Texas, the primary advantage of having a media credential is that it allows you access to the House and Senate floor,” said Grieder. “Lobbyists aren’t allowed to do that, and I took Straus to mean that he doesn’t want lobbyists and consultants to try to skirt the ethics rules by claiming to be journalists.” Grieder also noted that “the rule is there for a reason,” mentioning the 1976 Sharpstown Scandal.

Dave Mann, a reporter with the Texas Observer, told Breitbart Texas that he had applied for and been granted a Capitol media credential in the past. In the absence of any specific proposals for changes to the rules, Mann did not want to comment about the procedure, but did remark that he had received his credential without difficulty.

On the other hand, AgendaWise Texas, “a web-based, non-profit 501(c)(3) research and information organization committed to providing transparency in the Texas political discourse,” has applied for media credentials several times but has been unsuccessful. Last fall, AgendaWise filed a lawsuit against Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, Straus, Senate Committee on Administration Chairman Kevin Eltife, and Committee on House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren, in Travis County Court. The Texas Tribune had been granted server space in the Capitol server closets to live stream audio and video from the Legislature, including State Senator Wendy Davis’ highly-viewed filibuster of the abortion bill, but other media outlets, including AgendaWise, were not given this opportunity.

Breitbart Texas reached out to Straus’ office for comment for this story, and Straus spokesman Jason Embry said that the Speaker was not planning to change the media credential rules at this time, noting that it was not a function that was run out of the Speaker’s office. “According to the House rules, the House Committee on Administration oversees press credentials,” wrote Embry in an email.

Watch Speaker Straus’ interview at The Texas Tribune Festival here (the comments regarding Capitol media credentials starts around the 20:39 mark):

Photo of Speaker Joe Straus provided courtesy of The Texas Tribune Festival.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.

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